Amaza Lee Meredith (1894–1985) was an educator, artist, and architect who designed homes for family and friends and sought a more socially just world for Blacks during the interwar era. Prevented from entering the profession of architecture, she spent most of her career as a teacher of art, and founded the art department at Virginia State University. She was the architect for Azurest South, one of the first International Style homes in Virginia, and co-founder of Azurest North, a vacation community for Black middle-class Americans in Sag Harbor, New York.
Early Life and Education
Amaza Lee Meredith was the youngest of four children, born in Lynchburg, Virginia on August 14, 1895, to Emma Kenney (1871–1941), a Black woman and Samuel Meredith (1862–1915), a white man. At the time, interracial marriage in Virginia was not legal, but Emma Kenney and Samuel Meredith found ways to create and nurture a stable family. Kenney and Meredith purchased adjoining plots of land, and Meredith, a carpenter from a long line of artisans and builders, designed and constructed their family home on this shared property. It was from her father that Amaza Lee Meredith first learned about architecture, drawing blueprints, designing models in cardboard, and analyzing the construction of a carved wood staircase or decorative porch detail.
During the late nineteenth century, Lynchburg was a small but strategically located city in the South, the site of significant Civil War fighting that left severe physical devastation in its wake. During the postwar Reconstruction period (1865–77), the city experienced a building boom, and artisan builders experimented with emerging decorative styles, including Greek Revival, Gothic Revival, and Italianate. Meredith attended Jackson Street School in Lynchburg, established by the Freedmen’s Bureau and known for its blend of manual arts instruction with a classical humanities curriculum, the latter seen as essential for an aspiring Black middle class.11Kelly Miller and Joseph R. Gay, Progress and Achievements of the Colored People, originally published 1917, republished by Nabu Press, 2012. In 1920, after a lengthy process of petitioning by the Black community, the school was renamed Paul Laurence Dunbar High School after the Black modernist poet, playwright, and novelist. In 1912, Meredith graduated at the top of her class and expressed a desire to become an architect. Her father discouraged her, perhaps concerned that his daughter would encounter prejudice as a Black woman. As an alternative, Meredith pursued a career in teaching.22Amaza Lee Meredith Papers, 1912, 1930–1930, Accession #1982-20, Special Collections Dept., Johnson Memorial Library, Virginia State University, Petersburg, Va.
Meredith began her pursuit of teaching credentials at Virginia Normal and Industrial Institute in nearby Petersburg, Virginia. The local college for Blacks had been established during Reconstruction and was intended to educate an elite body of students. Although state funded, the college was unusual in having an all-Black faculty. One of Meredith’s first instructors was Edna Meade Colson, who eventually became Meredith’s life partner. Prior to the Civil War, Colson’s family had been respected freedmen, owning property and businesses in Petersburg. As an educator and activist, Colson continued the tradition, working to improve the living and education standards of her community. Among her achievements, Colson organized the first voter registration of Black women in Petersburg, following the 1920 ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment.
In 1915, while Meredith was taking her first courses in teacher training, her father, financially overwhelmed in trying to provide for his family, killed himself with a revolver shot to the head. Meredith never spoke of the incident but buried herself in her studies and found solace in her growing romantic relationship with Edna Colson.
Meredith received her elementary teaching certificate in 1916, and embarked on the required practicum, teaching in a rural one-room schoolhouse. Traveling across the remote mountainous region of Botetourt County, Virginia, Meredith raised funds from the Black community to match contributions from millionaire entrepreneur Julius Rosenwald, whose program enabled the construction of a new school building. It was Meredith’s first encounter with the positive impact that architectural design could have on a community.
Eager to do more, Meredith returned to Virginia Normal and Industrial Institute and received a professional certificate that enabled her to teach at the high-school level. She wanted to go further and teach at the college level, but southern schools did not permit Blacks to pursue higher education. Meredith joined the Great Migration and traveled to New York City, where she was able to enroll at Teachers College, Columbia University. In New York, Meredith was exposed to the ideas of Alain Locke, whose theory of the “New Negro” was changing the perception of Blacks and giving rise to the Harlem Renaissance. Living among family in a large Harlem brownstone, Meredith saw Africa presented as a site of both exotic entertainment and serious political discourse, as Blacks sought an elusive common heritage.
At Teachers College Meredith studied art theory and practice under a curriculum designed by proto-modernist Arthur Wesley Dow (1857–1922), whose students also included Lois Mailou Jones and Georgia O’Keefe. Together with Denman Waldo Ross (1853–1935), a Harvard design theorist and art educator, Dow offered a formalist approach that focused on attention to abstract elements such as line, dot, shape, and color.33Marie Frank, “The Theory of Pure Design and American Architectural Education in the Early Twentieth Century,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 67, no. 2 (June 2008): 248–73. Dow’s successors at Teacher’s College took the observation of formal design elements into the public realm at the same time that mass production was beginning to significantly influence everyday life. Meredith learned to appreciate beauty by exploring the new aesthetic forms showing up in Manhattan’s cultural venues, galleries, museums, and department store windows. New fashions in architecture and interiors promoted the purity of geometric lines, with lavish shiny materials that complemented modernist design principles. Among other shows, Meredith visited the “Modern Architecture: International Exhibition” at the Museum of Modern Art, and “House of the Modern Age” on Park Avenue and 39th Street, New York. She would later incorporate some of what she saw into her teaching.
Colson also studied at Teachers College. In 1938, she defended her dissertation, becoming one of the first Black women to receive a doctorate in education from Teachers College. It was then that the two women agreed, more than twenty years after their first encounter, to settle down and build a life together. For Meredith, this entailed the design and physical construction of a home. Colson wrote to her sister Myra: “Mazie and I are happy. The ground has been broken for our house; enough timber for concrete frames, some sand, cinder block, brush has been cleared away from our woods; the prospects for a comfortable attractive home are very pleasing, I hope you will like it I’m sure you will.”44Edna Colson to Myra Colson, May 13, 1939. Myra Callis Papers Collection 193-1 to 193-53. (193-folder 1939), Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University, Washington, D.C.
The house Meredith built, Azurest, became a retreat for the two women against the numerous social prejudices they faced. The house was also a laboratory for design concepts. Concrete blocks, glass bricks, flat roof and rounded corners conveyed a sense of modernity and reflected the formal concepts of pure design that Meredith had been taught, as well as the language of International Style.
For the interior, Meredith drew on popular fashions of the time to create a harmonious and restorative environment, often using vivid colors. In July 1939, Meredith wrote to her mentor, poet and civil rights activist Anne Spencer: “S.O.S. The contractor has misplaced the picture of a cement plaster living-room fireplace with metal bands running around its curved face. Is in ‘American Home’ magazine, August 1936. If you can locate that number, please send me the page by return mail. You are my last hope! Thanks a million. ‘Azurest’ coming slowly but surely. Love Amazie.”55Amaza Meredith to Anne Spencer, July 23, 1939. Papers of Anne Spencer and the Spencer Family, 1829, 1864–2007, #14204, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, Va.
The finished fireplace was a near-replica of that shown in the magazine. Meredith also drew on Dow’s color theories to create a sense of depth and shadow through complementary color combinations, as seen in the bathroom. She also acknowledged the fashion for luxurious surfaces, seen here in chrome and black lacquer, which in turn paid homage to the arts of Africa as represented in American culture.
The completion of Azurest in 1939 and the beginning of a shared life with Colson gave Meredith the confidence to make further inroads into the fields of architecture and art. She returned to teach at Virginia Normal and Industrial Institute, which soon became Virginia State College. Bolstered by a president open to new ideas, Meredith created a department dedicated to studio art and art appreciation. Although the department was housed under the umbrella of the new field of Domestic Science, Meredith enticed students to reject the traditional areas of study that funneled women to blue-collar jobs in industry and domestic service. Instead, she directed her students toward the possibilities of mass media in publications and advertising, where graphic design, printing, painting, and photography offered greater respectability, higher income, and prestige. Taking her new ideas beyond the academy, Meredith also taught art to the public as a way to enrich everyday life. Going into communities historically denigrated as lacking in imagination and creativity, Meredith taught community members to practice art for personal pleasure and self-awareness.
Meredith refused to set aside her ambition to practice architecture. In 1939, Meredith, together with her sister Maude Terry (a Brooklyn schoolteacher), Maude’s daughter Iris, and son-in-law Frederick Richards (both physicians at Harlem Hospital), made a joint purchase of some marshy wooded land in Long Island’s Sag Harbor, an area long-renowned for its embrace of diversity with a history of welcoming both formerly enslaved Black people and Native Americans. Their plan was to develop a vacation resort for Black residents, many of them the sisters’ family and friends. The sisters named the community Azurest North, envisioning it as a private coastal oasis of rest and recuperation from the daily toil of life in a segregated and discriminatory society.66In the eulogy that Meredith gave at Maude Terry’s funeral, she wrote that her sister “was a summer visitor to this place of natural beauty where white sands, white clouds, blue sky and blue waters meet; a place of silence, peace and rest, ‘Heavenly Rest,’ where there was only Peace, Love and Beauty. . . . She envisioned homes among the trees, along the trails, within sight of sunrises and sunsets over the Bay. In her imagination, this place became ‘Heavenly Peace, Blue Rest, Blue Haven, Azure Rest.’ From these descriptions and phrases, the name ‘Azurest’ was coined.” Meredith Papers, Virginia State University, Special Collections and Archives. Terry created a syndicate to aid with sales and mortgages, which were difficult for Blacks to obtain, and gradually families committed to purchasing the lots.
Meredith drew numerous plans for Azurest North cottages, though it is not clear today how many were built according to her designs. One set of drawings, intended as a residence for her niece’s family, suggests a utopian space, mirroring the International Style shiplike designs of Le Corbusier and other modernists. The very first house built, in 1940, was Terry Cottage, where Meredith and Colson often spent summers. It was small but carefully situated on the shoreline to take advantage of the view of the bay. Like Terry Cottage, the other homes at Azurest North were modest in height and scale.
They were typically brightly painted, with flat roofs or slightly sloping ones, ranch-style, and sited to fit snugly into the landscape. As in Azurest South, the interiors were efficiently designed with built-in cabinet shelves and seating.
Azurest North remains an active beach community today, with annual celebrations and get-togethers. Public attention was brought to the resort by the bestseller novel Sag Harbor, by Colson Whitehead. A coming-of-age story, the narrative exudes some of the romantic optimism and sense of community central to the resort’s founding. Despite pressure from outsiders, and the growing accumulation of wealth in the nearby Hamptons, Azurest North continues to express a proportionate and respectful relationship to the environment, retaining the modest scale and height of the original dwellings.
In addition to Azurest South and Azurest North, Meredith made several alterations to existing homes belonging to friends and colleagues. Some evidence indicates she designed a single-story home for a friend, Ann Crittenden Preston, in Prairie View, Texas, in the late 1950s. According to the Reverend Grady W. Powell, Sr., who was pastor of Gillfield Baptist Church in Petersburg where Meredith was a member of the congregation, she contributed to or advised on the design of the church addition in 1964.
Meredith and Colson lived together at Azurest until their final days, and in homage to her dedicated teaching career, at her death Meredith bequeathed the property to Virginia State College Alumni Association.